Pre-thinking:

In this TED talk psychologist Steven Pinker speaks about his controversial book, The Blank Slate. Contrary to the popular belief that humans are shaped by society and their experiences, Pinker cites evidence for genetic predisposition.  As you watch, note the evidence that he cites. Are there errors in logic? Also consider why the areas of parenting and art were the most controversial.

Why you should listen:

Steven Pinker’s books have been like bombs tossed into the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate. Pinker asserts that not only are human minds predisposed to certain kinds of learning, such as language, but that from birth our minds — the patterns in which our brain cells fire — predispose us each to think and behave differently.

His deep studies of language have led him to insights into the way that humans form thoughts and engage our world. He argues that humans have evolved to share a faculty for language, the same way a spider evolved to spin a web. We aren’t born with “blank slates” to be shaped entirely by our parents and environment, he argues in books including The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Who is he:

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author. He is a Harvard C­ollege Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University,[3] and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

Questions:

  1. After watching this video, are you persuaded to believe that biology plays more of a role than experience?
  1. In the video, Pinker claims that current research on parenting does not account for biological influence. What about a child whose behavior changes after an interaction or experience?
  1. If what Pinker concludes is true, it implies that we have little to no control over our lives or how our children  turn out. What would this mean for society and our education/parenting strategies?
  1. How does this theory account for instances where children turn out completely different than anyone biologically related to them?
  1. Why was art such a controversial topic in the book? Why would art being universal to human nature be problematic for artists?
  1. When addressing the claim that art has declined in the 20th century, what are Pinker’s arguments? What would the implication be if art simply had declined?

Human nature and the blank slate with Steven Pinker

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